A woman, called Elsa by UK-based aid group Save the Children, walks with a child in a displacement camp in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. File picture: Rui Mutemba/Save the Children/Handout via Reuters
A woman, called Elsa by UK-based aid group Save the Children, walks with a child in a displacement camp in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. File picture: Rui Mutemba/Save the Children/Handout via Reuters

Focus on fighting ‘terrorists’ ignores real humanitarian needs in Cabo Delgado

By Jonathan Whittall Time of article published May 10, 2021

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Three important developments took place in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province in less than six weeks, all of which will have a significant future impact on human lives.

First, in mid-March the US government designated an armed opposition group operating in Cabo Delgado as a “terrorist” organisation and sent military advisers to train the Mozambique army on counterterrorism measures. A fortnight later, the town of Palma – close to a multibillion dollar gas project run by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high-profile and brutal assault that killed and displaced an unknown number of people.

Last month, the Southern African Development Community condemned the terrorist attacks and affirmed that they could not be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response. The SADC deployed a “technical mission” to Mozambique that has recommended the deployment of 3 000 troops from the region.

Much of the attention on Cabo Delgado was fuelled by the claims of the opposition groups link to the Islamic State (IS) and the killing of foreigners in the attack on Palma.

While the conflict has been going on since 2017, it has received little political attention from regional governments or international actors – except those interested in Mozambique’s gas reserves or private military contracts. Much less attention has been given to the growing number of displaced people – more than 700 000 – and the critical humanitarian crisis facing the province.

Cabo Delgado is a neglected humanitarian crisis. With the attention from the SADC region and the Mozambican government’s international backers fixed almost exclusively on “fighting terrorism”, the solutions being proposed may, once again, overlook the urgent need to save lives, and alleviate the suffering.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity. They have ended up living in overcrowded camps or being hosted by communities with limited resources. People have experienced significant trauma – a decapitated husband, a kidnapped wife, a son or daughter from whom they have no news. Many walk for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food and water. Others remain in locations humanitarian actors cannot reach.

While the reasons for this conflict might be multifaceted and complex, the consequences of the violence are simple: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs for survival.

Meanwhile, significant restrictions are placed on the scale up of the humanitarian response, due to the insecurity and the bureaucratic hurdles impeding the importation of certain supplies and the issuing of visas for additional humanitarian workers.

Having recently returned from Cabo Delgado, I have seen first-hand how the scale of the humanitarian response in no way matches the scale of the needs. What does seem set to scale up is the regionally supported and internationally funded counterterrorism operation that could further impact a vulnerable population. In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen how counterterrorism operations can generate additional humanitarian needs while limiting the ability of humanitarian workers to respond.

First by designating a group as “terrorists”, we often see that the groups in question are pushed further underground – making dialogue with them for humanitarian access more complex. While states can claim that they “don’t negotiate with terrorists”, humanitarian workers are compelled to provide humanitarian aid impartially and to negotiate with any group that controls territory or that can harm our patients and staff. Many aid organisations shy away from this in places where a group has been designated as “terrorists”, out of fear of falling foul of counterterrorism legislation.

For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), providing impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building trust in the fact that our presence in a conflict is for the purpose of saving lives and alleviating suffering. Yet, counterterrorism operations try to bring humanitarian activities under the full control of the state and the military coalitions that support them. Aid is denied, facilitated or provided in order to boost the government’s credibility, to win hearts and minds for the military intervening, or to punish communities that are accused of sympathising with an opposition group. The most vulnerable can often fall through the cracks, which is why organisations like MSF need to be able to work independently.

The reason why humanitarian workers cannot be aligned with a state and its military backers is that often states and those affiliated with them are targets of armed opposition groups. Being aligned to a state that is fighting a counterterrorism war would reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communities to offer medical care. At MSF, we know this can come at a time when we are needed the most. In counterterrorism wars across the world we often see civilian casualties being justified due to the presence of ‘terrorists’ among a civilian population. Entire communities can be considered ‘hostile’, leading to a loosening of the rules of engagement for combat forces.

It is in these situations that we have seen hospitals destroyed and villages razed in attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Communities are often trapped between indiscriminate violence by armed groups and the counterterrorism response from the state.

The focus on “terrorism” serves the political and economic interests of those intervening in Mozambique. However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviating the immense suffering facing the people of Cabo Delgado.

* Jonathan Whittall is based in Johannesburg and is the director of the Analysis Department at Doctors without Borders (MSF). He can be found on Twitter @ offyourrecord

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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